The opening credits bill it as “Terrence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.” But that’s misleading. Though mounted to commemorate the British playwright’s centenary, director Terence Davies’ adaptation is nearly as faithless to the source as the source’s wife is to her husband. A more accurate credit would read “Terence Davies’ Terrence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.”
Both film and play, which premiered in 1952, open with its antihero—the nudgingly named Hester (Rachel Weisz)—attempting suicide. But Davies, a stylist and a fetishist of postwar England (the time and place of his adolescence), has little patience for the theatrical, and arranges the first act as though on shuffle. Mostly through inference, we gradually learn that Hester is the wife of a plump lawyer, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale). Ditto that she has commenced relations with Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), a former RAF pilot who has rocked her button-up world with his brags about surviving WWII.
More than a decade separates The Deep Blue Sea from Davies’ previous narrative feature, The House of Mirth, and the initial 45 recalls one of the musty, plotless memory soaks with which Davies kicked off his career: the so-called “Terence Davies Trilogy,” Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. Things eventually calm down and longer scenes emerge, but Davies maintains control over the material, keeping what he likes, rewriting what he thinks he can do better. He leaves alone two of the most polite and civil would-be arguments you’ve ever witnessed, but invents a quietly startling flashback where Hester, on the verge of another suicide attempt, finds solace in a memory set during the bombing of Britain.
Davies is famed for his use of ‘50s songs to summon up an era, a schtick here kept largely under wraps. Much of Sea takes place sans music, and since most of the dialogue is met with a pregnant pause, that means half the movie is comprised of silence. The absence of music has its own power: it adds to the film’s creeping slowness, which affords viewers plenty of time to let the gravity of Hester’s untenable position—she can’t tame Freddie, can’t return to William—sink in till it just about makes us sick. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
George Lucas and Martin Scorsese were among the first mainstream filmmakers to extensively use pop music in movies, and both cited Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising as an influence.